Westside bohemian hangout calls it quits after 11½ years
By Michael Aushenker
A blow to the live music scene this side of the 405, The Talking Stick has shuttered after nearly a dozen years, first in Santa Monica and until recently on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice.
“I’m sad The Stick is closed but very grateful for all the beautiful things that happened in, through and around the coffeehouse,” said Rich Braaksma, who, with his wife Sheri, opened The Talking Stick at 1630 Ocean Park Blvd. on June 1, 2003, after arriving from Canada.
From the get-go, the Stick became awash in weekly open mic sessions and monthly programs.
“Sheri and I had moved to the Venice/Santa Monica area three years earlier, working for a church, and we thought a coffeehouse was the best possible way to build and grow community. The Talking Stick, as a name and concept, was chosen because when a talking stick is passed around, everyone has a voice, everyone matters,” Braaksma said.
Some of the longest-running performers included Dutch Newman and Mikal Sandoval, Ernest Troost, Tom Gramlich and Byron Pfifer. Vinnie Caggiano frequently played jazz guitar at the Ocean Park location, while singer-songwriter Jamie Alan mixed originals with covers such as Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” [Full disclosure: this writer exhibited paintings at the original Talking Stick in the early 2000s.]
“The place had such a homey feeling to it. It looked and felt like playing in a living room with someone making coffee in the kitchen. It was a non-pretentious, anti-corporate, community driven coffee shop,” said Alan, who initially came to The Talking Stick for guitar looping performances by Vinnie Caggiono that also included jams with guest musicians.
Tracy Newman, Dutch Newman’s sibling, performed regularly with her band, the Reinforcements, and shot six web shows there. Newman, who co-created the sitcom “According to Jim” and whose sister is founding “Saturday Night Live” member Larraine Newman, was happy to discover this Westside gem.
“It was one of the first places I played when I left TV writing and returned to being a singer/songwriter,” said Newman, who, with Dutch, took over the six-string night on the second Thursday of each month.
“The idea was to have a living room out in public — a great social equalizer for rich and poor artists, writers, business people, searchers, drifters … everyone,” Braaksma said.
After the Ocean Park building that originally housed The Talking Stick was sold a few years ago, the coffeehouse was evicted, but the move to Lincoln Boulevard was a positive one in that it was a much bigger space that better accommodated performers.
“A huge part of that was Nicholas Walker, a.k.a. Nicky Black, who is still keeping busy putting on shows at places like the Unurban,” Braaksma said. “Nicky was passionate about the coffeehouse and also about art and creativity in Venice and beyond. He partnered well with our vision to make space for people to have a voice.”
“I liked the fact that no one seemed to be running it, so we could essentially do whatever we wanted, even while there were renovations happening,” Newman said. “I just loved the typical laid-back audience there.”
In 2011, the Braaksmas were informed that their immigration visa would not be renewed.
“We suddenly had to leave the country ASAP!” Braaksma said. “After we left, we tried various ways of running the coffeehouse from afar and then turned it over to others for management and ownership but it proved difficult. A lot of people worked really hard and cared deeply, though. Through the years, I’m so grateful for all our employees: they all became friends.”
Today, Braaksma works as a pastor at Hillside Community Church, a small congregation in Calgary, and writes books, including “Telling the Truthiness: The Gospel According to Stephen Colbert.”
“I’m not selling coffee,” he said, “just drinking tons of it.”